Bound to Change
Perhaps the only certainty we have in this life is its uncertainty.
Since when is it May?
What a question. It’s seemingly inevitable that I ask it once per month, usually in the single quiet moment I afford myself amidst all the chaos to just breathe. It isn’t lost upon me, however, that this question is usually followed by another: Since when is it June?
As I stare the remaining two weeks of my freshman year in the face, I can’t help but feel a bit incredulous that it is all coming to an end. “Since when …?” I often lament, but the answer is simple: Since September, or perhaps even when I was first accepted in December 2020 or even when I first visited Hanover the February before the pandemic even began. Needless to say, this life that I’ve built has long been in the making, brewing slowly in the background for quite some time.
The other day I got a worried message from a younger friend of mine, who was ruefully counting down her last days of high school and frantically — or rather, pleadingly — asking me to reassure her that college will be “the best time of her life.” At that moment I was in a vulnerable state; coming off of my fifth straight hour studying at the same cramped table in the library, I was tempted to give her a less-than-satisfactory answer. I stopped myself before I could, though, because I knew deep in my heart that what I was about to say was not sincere, but a product of some arbitrary stress. Such a jaded answer wouldn’t be fair — not to her, not to Dartmouth and certainly not to me and my experience here.
I remembered, then, what I had felt when I was in her position just a short time ago. Had it really only been a year since I was in her place, standing on what felt like the precipice of a vast uncertainty? It would have been easy for me to give her a dismissive answer now that I was at the end of the tunnel. I had survived, but I couldn’t forget that she was still at its opening, peering in and wondering if there’s a light to be found at its end.
I thought for a moment and answered with the truth, or, at least, my version of it. I told her that it will hit you when you least expect it — this moment of realization when you look around and you realize that the life that you are leading is completely different from the one you had been leading a year earlier. It’s the realization that at its core everything has changed, from where you live, to what you eat, to how you spend your time, to who and what you’re now expected to know.
Who was I, though, to reassure her? How could I possibly explain that even though the very bedrock of your being changes, it will end up alright? I could only try my best to explain the experience of what it is like to forge a new life for yourself, and the steep learning curve that comes with it. I could try to explain the feeling of no longer being subjected to nine hours straight in a school building — of being master of your own time and the crushing weight of that responsibility. I could try to explain how through trial, but mostly through error, you spend months building a reliable menu for yourself, learning what to eat and where to eat it. I could try to explain that first moment that you find yourself referring to your dorm — that unfamiliar space and bed — as home in passing conversation. Or that moment when the sleeping stranger in your room no longer fazes you, becoming instead a roommate — a comrade in arms who helps to decorate, or buy soap for the bathroom, or consult on the day’s outfit while still half-asleep and bleary.
I can’t explain it. I don’t know if I’ll ever be able to fully articulate what it means to look around and understand that this is a distinctly new era in your life. How can I possibly verbalize what it means to get swept away in it all — to redefine the standards for what is considered normal? Just a year earlier, I would not have been able to recognize anything about the life that I currently lead, not the people I eat dinner with every night, the information in all of the classes I’ve taken, or even the lingo I’ve picked up here. I’ve gotten so used to it all that I cannot even begin to imagine my life being any different than how it currently is.
Yet, as I embark upon the last two weeks of my first year, I can’t help but think about how, yet again, everything is bound to change. I remember once hearing a quip that there are only three things in this life that are certain: taxes, death and the inevitable reality of change. Thinking about next year and what has yet to come, I can’t help but feel the echoes of the anxiety that plagued me a year ago. Sure, I may think I have it all figured out right now, but with the uncertainties of next year — of a new dorm, or a new roommate, or an introduction to Greek life, or friends both on and off campus, off exploring the world and rebuilding lives of their own — everything that I currently take for granted is subject to change once more.
A look into the history of human civilizations will only confirm what I know to be true: Nothing is built to last. The question then remains, however, of how we come to terms with that notion. Is the answer found in acknowledging the unease — of owning up to it? After all, is my life at this moment what I always imagined it to be like? Maybe. But the more important question is whether it even matters. Jean-Paul Sartre once said that being both is and is what it is not, and it strikes me that so too is life. Things just seem to be not only the way that they currently are, but also what they have the potential to be. Perhaps the answer to all of this uncertainty lies in taking it one day at a time — finding comfort in the moments that have passed and recognizing the inherent wonder of the ones that soon will.